Children Still Need Community: How iREAD Outside shifted online during the pandemic

Category: Books, branching out conservation for everyone, Community Resilience, Family Friendly, iREAD Outside, Vamos Afuera

By LandPaths Staff

May 13, 2020


Guadalupe Casco, a LandPaths' staff member laughing with a group of kids

Guadalupe Casco, Senior Bilingual Field Specialist, runs iREAD Outside, one of LandPaths’ hallmark programs for children. Recently, she’s taken on the challenge of shifting a completely outdoors-based program into the online environment. This is what she had to say….

What is the background on iREAD Outside? When and why was it started? Who is reached by iREAD Outside?

iREAD Outside started in the summer of 2016 before I came on board with LandPaths.It was designed to reach families with children of ages 0 to 6. iREAD Outside aims to increase the percentage of family members reading to children daily, while encouraging children and families to explore nature and get outside together.

Based out of Bayer Farm, we also go on four outings where we venture out to an open space or ecological preserve like Rancho Mark West and other fun places. We aim to motivate parents, guardians, and family and community volunteers to read out loud to children and spend time in nature.

Some of the program incentives have included a reading quilt raffle and book giveaway after every session. I try really hard to ensure that every reading session is bilingual in Spanish and English with available copies of books in both languages. Since iREAD is based out of Bayer Farm, the demographic that this program reaches is families from Santa Rosa primarily from Roseland and Spanish speakers. We do have other families that come from other areas of Sonoma like Healdsburg and a few from West County. Most of the families that participate are part of the Bayer Farm community.

iread at bayer farm
iread at bayer farm

Why did you make the decision to take iREAD Outside online? Did you have any concerns about going digital? 

Due to the unforeseen circumstances of Covid 19 and the shelter-in-place order, we wanted to make sure that we were providing meaningful ways for families to stay connected, even from a safe distance. There are so many options for adults to stay connected, but I feel like there is less for children, especially the younger ones.

I wanted to make sure that I maintained open communication with the families that already participate in our programs, but by going virtual it would be a good opportunity to get more visibility from families that may not have heard about this program. So, taking the iREAD outside program virtual has served the purpose of keeping families engaged, outreaching to new families, and creating a space and time for families to designate Friday mornings as reading time.

My primary concern with taking the program virtual is the psychological risks of digital engagement and media exposure with children of this age group. Some of the steps that I’ve taken to mitigate this has been making sure that the program is no more 30 minutes, encouraging parents to read to their children beyond the 30 minutes of virtual story time, and encouraging parents/guardians to use dialogue as a primary tool for expanding vocabulary, and gaining skills like storytelling and building narratives. I try to remind parents that dialogue can be done anywhere and anytime.

What were the challenges of turning a program that is centered on going outside into nature in groups with small children, into a pandemic-safe digital program? 

There are many challenges, including my limited knowledge of online platforms and tools available to transition this program online, the lack of social interaction among children and families, and what seems an impossible task of substituting the wonderful feeling that you get when spending time in nature with other people.

It is extremely difficult to get the same level of awe and wonder online as opposed to when we notice a beautiful butterfly fluttering by or hear the songs of the birds in the background as we sit outside together to the contagious laughter of children. 

Why is iREAD an important spring/summer program? What kind of impact does it have? 

iREAD Outside was created for the summer at Bayer Farm because during this time there are less accessible opportunities for kids to stay engaged and active. The fact that the iREAD happens right after the free lunch distribution at Bayer also helps to ensure that free meals are provided to the youth in the Roseland community who may otherwise not have access to adequate nutrition during the summer months.

For families whose children don’t necessarily meet the age requirement for summer camps iREAD is a fun and free event that engages the can engage the whole family. While school activities take a break during the summer, iREAD keeps children engaged and provides a special opportunity for families to bond over a love of reading and being outdoors. 

What has been the biggest success of the transition to digital? 

One of the biggest successes of going virtual is the number of families reached. For the first post we reached 4,061 people, the post had 750 engagements, 43 shares, 54 likes on the original video. The second reading session on May 1 reached 3,515 people, 558 engagements, 642 thru plays, 38 likes on original post, 12 shares and 2.6K total views. The third reading session on May 8 reached 750 people total, 190 engagements and 360 views. (all these logistics are automatically tracked by the VA facebook page) What this tells me is that the program is engaging and reaching more families than ever before. More families are finding out about the work that we are doing at Bayer Farm and about iREAD Outside.

Hopefully, when we are able to gather we can introduce all these new families to the garden and other LandPaths preserves. Going virtual has helped us expand our outreach and visibility. Some of the comments that we have received include: 

  • Xi Es writes, “Thank you Lupita, ella se puso muy feliz de verte, del libro y de la felicitacion” (Thank you Lupita, she was very happy to see you, the book and her happy birthday shout out!) 
  • Asuncion Martinez writes, “Me gusta tu jardin, y tu perro, me siento como en casa y libre de este encierro…tu manera de hablar me quita el estress…gracias Lupita” (I like your garden, your dog, It makes me feel comfortable like at home and free of this confinement…your way of speaking takes my stress away. Thank you Lupita!)
  • Kika Lopez writes, “Ximena te manda a saludar y quiere que la saludes esta muy emocionada de verte!” (Ximena sends you greetings and wants you to send a shout out to her. She’s very excited to see you!

What are your plans moving forward for the next few months as we deal with uncertain times? Will this program continue into the summer and fall?  

iREAD Outside will continue on a virtual platform most likely through the summer. At this point it is uncertain if the program will continue into the fall. I think it will depend on the updates on safety protocols by our county officials. If the circumstances improve during the summer we might transition into gathering in small groups. 

How can people support iRead at this time? 

Visit Vamos Afuera Con LandPaths and share the videos that come out every Friday at 10am. Share some of your stories of reading outside during this time on our page, What current books are you reading with your children? What special thing do you do during story time? How do you make story time fun? Tag @landpaths or @vamosafueraconlandpaths. And use the hashtags #iREAD

Anything else you’d like to add? 

This year we are working with Social Advocates for Youth to introduce an intern into the iREAD Outside program. This will be the first time that the program takes on the help of a student intern. Usually all our volunteers are adults. It is very exciting to get the help of a high school student and to be able to provide an internship opportunity. Some of the skills that this student intern will gain are: public speaking, training on library data base, proven reading techniques to teach basic reading skills, communication, and computer skills (as she will be working with me remotely via Zoom).

This new edition to the program will truly make this an inter-generational experience involving the parents, children, the support of community volunteers (like the guest readers, presenters and adult volunteers) and now a student intern. I feel like this is a great example of how the whole community can come together to support the learning of our community’s children…it’s like the proverb says, it takes a village to raise one child! 

Watch Guadalupe and special guests sharing stories in Spanish and English on Fridays at 10am at Vamos Afuera Con LandPaths’ Facebook Live!

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